Vulnerabilities / Threats

10/24/2018
10:30 AM
Paul Vixie
Paul Vixie
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Benefits of DNS Service Locality

Operating one's own local DNS resolution servers is one of the simplest and lowest-cost things an IT administrator can do to monitor and protect applications, services, and users from potential risks.

A non-networked computer is very rare now because most useful work involves data and services that are distributed across some kind of "internet" — that is, any network that speaks IP, public or private. Notably, most non-internet networks have failed — we won't be building or connecting to AppleTalk or DECnet or SNA or XNS networks ever again. Consider, then, that most useful work relies on TCP/IP, which itself relies on the Domain Name System (DNS). We should know as much as possible about our use of the DNS, but most IT administrators are much too busy learning their specialized craft to also become experts on every enabling technology.

In this article, I will describe the use of DNS by users and applications, which means DNS resolution. There's much more than this to say about DNS — for example, DNS content management and provision. But while providing DNS content is a specialized task, accessing that DNS content through resolution is a universal activity — no work of any kind can begin in TCP/IP networks until DNS has been accessed at least once and possibly many times. Importantly, for this discussion, among the kinds of "work" I refer to are online crime, network abuse, and surveillance.

Early DNS
In the 1980s, when TCP/IP's design was mostly finalized by the research and education communities, it was common to have only one or a few computers on a campus because computers were very large and expensive to acquire, operate, and maintain. This concentration caused many services and applications to share a single computer, which users would access using "dumb" terminals. Thus, when the DNS was created, the resolution service was installed on at least one computer on every campus. We learned to expect rapid answers to most DNS questions, usually receiving an answer within a millisecond or so. Networked applications such as e-mail or file service were operated under the assumptions that at least one DNS access would be necessary for every "transaction" but that DNS access would be fast enough that this would not reduce the performance of applications and services that depended on it.

Before the commercialization and privatization of the Internet in the 1990s, there was no online crime or abuse. When only scientists and engineers could access the Internet, and the goals were academic rather than commercial, we had safety by accident. Much of today's Internet crime and abuse is made possible by the total absence of security consideration in some of the Internet's oldest core protocols and services — and it has proved very difficult to add security considerations decades later to a network that was designed to accommodate only trusted users and trusted applications. One of the most serious security problems is that malicious actors can create DNS content to facilitate their online crimes, and they will receive the same excellent service for this malicious content as we get for non-malicious content.

Today's DNS
Continuous consolidation among Internet companies has created some dominant players, such as Google, Cisco, IBM, and Cloudflare, each of which offers a global DNS resolution service identical to the resolution service every network had to run for itself back in the early days. This is in some ways a natural progression because these external DNS resolution services (such as 8.8.8.8, 9.9.9.9, or 1.1.1.1) are free, convenient, and, perhaps unknown to most users, also a vital source of network intelligence for the companies that operate these resolution services. Many IT administrators working today were not working in the field when DNS resolution service was always provided on-campus, under local policy, by local staff. As a result of this trend and that generation gap, there are added costs and subtracted benefits, or losses, from the use of external DNS resolution servers, either the global kind (8.8.8.8, et al.) or the regional kind (as provided by one's own ISP).

Accounting of Losses
The first loss we experienced from externalizing the once-local DNS resolution service was privacy. Our external DNS transactions are rarely protected from surveillance, and while such protection is now being developed, that protection will come in the form of added complexity. The best way to avoid having one's DNS transactions observed, tracked, or analyzed by third parties is to not externalize those transactions in the first place. Most of us need not fear surveillance of traffic inside our own networks, which makes those "owned networks" a great place to keep data we don't want published.

The second loss from externalizing DNS resolution is performance. No matter how many DNS resolution servers are externally constructed, none will be reachable by our users and our applications in less than 1 millisecond. Thus, the number of transactions we can process per unit of time will be reduced by the need to wait for speed-of-light transmission delays across a distance greater than our campus. Most web browsers now contain an internal DNS "cache" to offset this penalty. Most other networked applications lack this cache. Again, I question the need for application-level caching when a simple local DNS resolution server would offer the same benefits to all networked applications across an organization.

(Column continues on next page.)

Dr. Paul Vixie is an Internet pioneer and thought leader who designed, implemented, and deployed several Domain Name System (DNS) protocol extensions and applications that are used throughout the Internet today. He is CEO of Farsight Security Inc. Previously, he served as ... View Full Bio
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